Star Trek first aired in 1966, the year the United States substantially increased its presence in the Vietnam War, which sparked immediate protests by citizens and leaders alike. The year also saw the Surveyor 1 space probe land on the moon, becoming the first spacecraft to soft-land on another world. Mid-year, as US planes began bombing Hanoi, President Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act, and the Supreme Court settled the precedent-setting Miranda vs. Arizona case, all within a few weeks time. HUAC started investigating Americans who aided Viet Cong, The Beatles became “bigger than Jesus,” national crime and inflation were on the rise, and race riots dominated poor, African-American cities. Among it all, the Cold War and the Space Race were in full effect, providing endlessly tumultuous fodder between the world’s superpowers. It was a massively political, complicated, confusing, and passionate time to be alive.
With so much competition and fear fueling the landscape, Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek to promote a hopeful, optimistic version of the future where American ideologies were spread across the far reaches of the galaxy. His vision saw the world as unified and prosperous, free of conflict. He would use Star Trek to make political statements, push political agendas, discuss taboo topics through allegory and simultaneously delight audiences. He tackled militarism and peace, race and racism, sexism and feminism, and capitalized on the importance of the Space Race by combining everything into television that served equally as social commentary as much as entertainment. And all of it was powerfully, obviously rooted in contemporary 1960s events from the American perspective.
War was one of Star Trek’s major issues, as the real battle in Vietnam raged during the show’s entire three-season run. H. Bruce Franklin writes, “By the time the first Star Trek episode was broadcast in September 1966, the United States was fully engaged in a war that was devastating Indochina and beginning to tear America apart. By the time the final Star Trek episode aired in June 1969, the Vietnam war seemed endless, hopeless, and catastrophic. Four episodes that were broadcast between the spring of 1967 and January 1969, the most crucial period in the war and for America, relate directly to the war. Taken as a sequence, these four episodes dramatize a startling and painful transformation in the war’s impact on both the series and the nation.”
The most prominent of those episodes was “The City on the Edge of Forever,” wherein McCoy (DeForest Kelley) goes back in time and accidentally changes the future. Kirk (William Shatner) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) follow him and prevent it from happening. In the past, they meet a peace activist whose outcome in the episode leads to variances in America’s involvement in World War II. The episode’s subtext is heavily in support of the growing citizen movement against the Vietnam War, to which Roddenberry was sympathetic. It’s now regarded as one of the most notable Star Trek episodes produced.
“A Private Little War” was another Vietnam-charged episode, aired during the Tet Offensive, where Kirk and crew find a wartorn planet in which wartime behaviors mimicked those of US involvement in Vietnam. Kirk even makes a direct reference to the “brush wars of the 20th century” in the episode, but gets through without taking any overly heavy-handed pro- or anti-war stance.
The Cold War also held prominence throughout Star Trek. As Aaron Angel writes, “The Cold War was the longest length of time in the modern history when two nations were at war without engaging in direct battle. The literature and popular culture of this period reflect the uncertainty of the times and give imagery of the enemy in a way that can frighten and entertain.” On Star Trek, America was quite obviously represented by The Federation, the Earth organization which Starfleet served. The two major protagonists of the series, the Klingons and the Romulans, were apt stand-ins for the Soviets and the Chinese.
J. William Snyder Jr. notes "Star Trek sets up and develops throughout the series striking parallels between the United Federation of Planets and the "West", and the Klingon Empire and the Romulan Star Empire as the "East". The series also have episodes that do not involve either of the Federation's enemies, but still make forceful comments on the evils of militarism."
Furthering, Aaron Angel continues "The Romulan Star Empire lies between the Klingon Empire and the United Federation of Planets. This position is a tenuous one. The governmental structure of the Romulan Star Empire is a tri-cameral system, with nearly equal power divided among the following branches. This setup is similar to the Chinese form of government. The Tal Shi'ar, the intelligence gathering arm of the Empire, is a very thorough organization, considered the best in the galaxy. They are ruthless in their loyalty to the Empire and have ways of finding out information that would impress most of the known galactic governments. Similarly, the Chinese intelligence corps is known for its torture methods and is a feared tormentor. In the past seventy years, the Romulan Empire and the Klingon Empire have had two major wars, with the Klingons winning the first. This war led to the development of an economic dependence on the Klingons for weapons and ships and led to an economic depression in the Romulan Empire. This war between the Klingons and Romulans closely resembles the problems between the Soviets and the Chinese following the death of Stalin. By 1963, the two countries were exchanging insults across their shared border and engaging in competition for Communist leadership on the planet. This split replaced the original Soviet face for Communism and added the Chinese ideology.”
Angel goes into great depth on the parallels which can be examined by following his above link. Needless to say, the connections were evident to Star Trek viewers of the time. In concurrence with Roddenberry’s political attitudes on Star Trek, he eventually cast Walter Koenig as Pavel Chekov as a member of the Enterprise’s main crew. Having a Russian on board that looked like one of The Monkees was a win-win, as it appealed to the young teenage viewer and furthered the political statement that in the future, we’re a unified people.
Star Trek also attempted to address sexism in its early conception. A character called “Number One” was to be second in command aboard the Enterprise, and was an intelligent, authoritative female figure played by Majel Barrett. Unfortunately, in tune with the social attitudes of the time, NBC executives didn’t think audiences would connect with a woman in that role and she was stricken from the concept.
J. William Snyder, Jr. writes “With the demise of Number One, Star Trek's portrayal of women was to be, at best, ambivalent- wavering between an implicit belief in women as equals but an unwillingness to exemplify in a tangible way what was being professed. Throughout the rest of the series after the two pilots, all the female members of the crew were dressed in short, skimpy skirts instead of trousers that Number One and other female characters wore during the pilots. (Although her character was cut, Ms. Barrett returned to the series to play Nurse Chapel, a character more in line with what the network executives had in mind.)”
Trek did advertise its ambivalence through characters like Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), who was a prominent member of the Enterprise’s bridge crew that almost never fell into female stereotypes, aside from her rather visible legs. Her level of responsibility and prominence was incredible for the 1960s. The character is considered a pioneering one for black female actresses moving forward and a good symbol of Roddenberry’s intended progressivism with the series. Of course, the show otherwise was labeled with sexist portrayals in almost all of its other female characters (Yeoman Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney) being one of the most obvious).
The series also spoke to race relations in the 1960s, which existed as one of the other hottest and most controversial subjects of the decade. Synder writes “One area where Star Trek made considerable progress and incorporation into its substance was its regard towards minorities. Of course, by the late 1960's. the Civil Rights Movement in the United States was in full swing, and much progress had been made in that area. By the time the first episode of the series aired in 1966, the Congress had passed numerous Civil Rights Acts, the Voting Rights Act on 1965, and constitutional amendments outlawing the poll tax and extending the right to vote in Presidential elections to the residents of the District of Columbia, where a majority of the population is Black. Thus, Star Trek was ripe for emphasis on the equality of all people regardless of race.”
The Enterprise itself was racially mixed. Uhura and Sulu (George Takei) both had important and necessary roles on board the ship. And the white crewmembers, from Kirk and Spock to Chekov, all hailed from different origins. Further, the plot of entire episodes focused on racial issues that still resonate today. “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” is one of the most notable, an episode about two half-white, half-black beings that bring racial debates with them to the Enterprise. It’s revealed that one of them is considered inferior because of which side of his body is the “black” side. The argument is offered in such a way that it seems arbitrary and stupid, much like humanity’s concern about race in real-life society. Both hate each other and eventually return to their planet to find it destroyed by war caused by racial battle. There was no resolution, only the destruction of both sides because they failed to find a compromise or understanding.
At a time when voices like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and the Black Panthers were prominent, there was Star Trek, chiming in to side with peaceful change as the best solution.
It’s evident Star Trek based much of its content on modern times. With its relevance and popularity today, 50 years later, it’s clear how much of an impact those decisions made on society. Star Trek was often stunted by various cultural and technological limitations of the 1960s, but did its best to identify itself against the things it saw as flaws in society, and show people a prosperous, safer, more harmonious existence to strive to make reality.